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Editor’s column: Challenging year beckons as Chinese football tries to balance entertainment and development

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In this new feature for 2018 WEF founding editor Cameron Wilson gives his weekly thoughts on all the goings-on in Chinese football.

A belated happy new year, and welcome to my new column. Despite being the founder of this website I am not as prolific a writer as I could be. I’d like to put that down to a focus on quality rather than quantity. But that would be fanciful. However, to be honest since Chinese football blew up it seems I spent so much time talking to the media about it that everything I had to say was already out there. But this year I’m launching this column on Wild East to give my point of view, and more in-depth analysis right from the off. Chinese football is an endlessly fascinating subject, there will be plenty to write about so I think this column is going to be an interesting ride.

A 2017 – two steps forward, one step back

Before looking ahead to this year, we have to summarise last year. Of course the main story was the player rule changes – cutting of the foreign player quota and obliging each side to start one Chinese u23 player. How did this work out? Well, the stats show u23 players actually got less pitch time last year compared to 2016 before the new rule came in. Which is surprising, but stats of course don’t show the full picture, and it’s fair to say certain players last season got a game who would not have without the new rule. The jury is still out however. China’s group stage exit at the recent u-23 AFC cup suggests it has yet to take any effect. Of course its much to early for any effect, positive, or negative, to be seen after just one season, but that didn’t stop some voices in the Chinese media hail the u23 rule as a success after China won their first match. Such a claim, was, of course, nonsense. But it did highlight one of the reasons it’s so hard to properly understand the Chinese game – hidden agendas. In this case the voices in question were keen to trumpet the success of a controversial policy and curry favour with the powers that be. This is the problem in Chinese football. Very few have a pure desire to see the game improve for its own sake, their involvement in football is often tied to gains elsewhere, be they personal or business ones. The truth is out there as they say, but in Chinese football, don’t expect to find it on the Internet.

At any rate I am ambivalent to the new rule. Last year it did little to help quality on the pitch, which, let’s be honest, isn’t the greatest to begin with. Also the sight of u23 players regularly being subbed off after barely 10 minutes have elapsed was damaging for the credibility of the league and for the u23 players themselves. But on balance, I would concede the u23 rule – as it stood last season, not this year’s dog’s dinner – a necessary evil in China to counter the cultural bias towards seniority, and the power wielded in the dressing room by some senior players which enable them to gain pitch time when, frankly, they are absolutely past it.

The foreign player quota cut change was also unwise in my view. More on this later in the look at 2018.

Emerging trends

There were several trends which emerged last year. The first was the domination of the “new money” clubs. Guangzhou Evergrande, Shanghai SIPG, Hebei and Tianjin Quanjian finished in the top four – the first time none of the traditional “old guard” of Beijing, Jiangsu, Shenhua, Shandong (or other clubs who were around pre-2010) have featured in the front positions. From this we can see the inherent dysfunctional nature of older clubs. None of these clubs are primarily geared towards winning the CSL. They are instead run mostly like old state-owned enterprises – an “iron rice bowl” where a core of board members, long-standing staff and senior players exist in a network which serves their mutual interests. Everyone gets paid no matter how incompetent or bent they are, and no-one complains or speaks out because they are benefiting from it personally and that is not really the done thing culturally anyway.  It’s not that they don’t want to win anything. It’s just that they are institutionally conservative and, having failed to adopt to the winds of change, don’t realise that CSL clubs are no longer a gravy train for those on board and everyone is unwilling to give up their share of the benefits to see their team do better.

The old clubs have been surpassed by the likes Evergrande, SIPG, Quanjian and Hebei, which are newer clubs or at least have newer management who differ because they lack the entrenched and bloated old boys network which weighs down the whole operation so much that winning football games isn’t the priority. These clubs put professionalism first and are willing to spend the extra bit of money on the right players and staff to genuinely enhance their operation rather than do the bare minimum to keep the fans off their back which is the modus operandi of many of the older clubs.

Last year also saw what I think we can call the end of peak Evergrande. The gap has been slowly closing the past couple of years as other clubs realised they had to play catch up, and as new monied rivals like SIPG arrived on the scene. Gone are the days when the Guangzhou giant hoovered up all the best Chinese players, now basically no team with any aspirations to finish in the top six is willing to sell anyone who is a current China international or up-and-coming talent, and Evergrande face more competition to sign such players from lower teams. Deng Hanwen’s move to Guangzhou however shows their buying power is still up there. But along with their curious “We plan to have an all Chinese team by 2020” rhetoric and the recent bizarre signing of Tianjin Teda’s Nemanja Gudelj – an acquisition so underwhelming he must have been signed for at least some reasons outside of football – this is a team which is no longer an automatic pick as championship favourites.

2018 – Expect further regression on the pitch

I mentioned the foreign player quota cut. This year CSL clubs again are only allowed to field no more than three foreigners in any one CSL game, but now only four are allowed in the whole squad instead of five. Also new this year is a rule stipulating each club must not field less u23 players than the number of foreign players fielded and must start with at least one u23. Does that sound complicated? Yes, because in football it’s meant to be a simple matter who can appear – teams just pick the 11 best players for the game. The now convoluted quota rules risk turning supporters off. If the fans and media face unnecessary complications in working out which players may appear on the pitch, how is that going to attract more supporters? How is that going to help popularise the game further? It only irritates those who already follow the Chinese game and alienates potential new followers. It can also be inferred that by linking the number of foreign players to the number of Chinese u23 players used that foreign players are a necessary evil in the game and somehow to blame for u23 players not getting enough pitch time. This is not the case. There have been plenty of over-paid and under-performing foreigners in China over the years, but that is no different to anywhere else. And the new rule ignores the uncomfortable truth that some of the most over-paid and under-performing have actually been Chinese players.

Similarly this year may be the last we see Chinese clubs be serious Asian Champions League contenders. The CFA very unwisely cancelled the 3+1 rule or Asian foreigner rule at the start of last season, but since it was basically too late for any of CSL clubs in the Asian Champion’s League to get rid of their Asian players, they were able to field four foreigners in ACL games since the ACL still uses the 3+1 rule. This year it appears most of the Chinese ACL clubs are keeping an Asian foreigner in their squad, but as time goes on its more and more likely top CSL clubs will max out their four foreigner allocation on players from outside the continent. And don’t forget that in the past many of China’s Asian players were some of South Korea and Australia’s stronger players and by signing them, CSL clubs were often directly weakening ACL opponents.

In addition, and unbelievably, recently the CFA contemplated allowing Chinese clubs in the ACL play an extra Asian foreigner in the CSL to encourage them to keep an Asian player to play in ACL matches, but thankfully common sense prevailed and sporting integrity won out since other clubs in the CSL would not have enjoyed this unfair advantage.

Bring back 3+1

Ultimately, having different foreign player quota rules for your domestic league compared to the ACL has clear disadvantages. The 3+1 rule which is standard in most countries in Asia, and the Asian Champions League, is a useful mechanism which creates demand for, and stimulates the movement of, Asian players within Asia. This in turn can help players from one country who are perhaps not good enough to get a game in Europe move to a higher level in Asia. This also helps redistribute wealth via transfer fees and help the development of the game all over Asia. If the standard is raised continent-wide, then everyone can benefit from that, including China, in the shape a potentially higher number of World Cup qualifying slots. But whoever it is making executive decisions at the CFA is clearly not thinking with much foresight, nor do those really in control of it seem to understand football. This was demonstrated vividly last year when the foreign player quota was cut in the middle of a transfer window – something no-one with even a rudimentary understanding of how football works would ever sanction. So here we see another recurring theme in Chinese football – the lack of independence from General Sports Administration control, which foists short-termist measures on the game which fail to take into the account the practical needs of a professional football league.

Expect a rough year

So this year expect standards on the pitch to fall further as the narrative, as always, drifts away from football and towards rules, politics, skulduggery and money. This is a great tragedy because what Chinese football lacks most critically is a widespread culture of football where the sport is loved and is part of the fabric of society, where parents give up evenings and weekends to run kids football teams. Where kids look up to locally-born footballing heroes instead of foreign ones. Where early-round cup games allow provincial towns the chance to see their club take on the big guns from the east coast on a Saturday afternoon instead of the CFA assuming no-one will turn up and putting the game on in the middle of the working day. Whilst I greatly applaud some other recent rule-changes which place limits on teams renaming themselves and relocating to other cities, these are just the bare foundations which only now appear to be finally in place.

The new foreign player and u23 rules forget the key function of the CSL – to provide the highest standard possible of professional football matches for the Chinese public to watch. The CSL is not a development league or some bizarre sporting laboratory. Only by focusing on the goal of making quality, entertaining football can the lack of a widespread football culture really be changed, and more youngsters be inspired to take up the game from an earlier age thanks to a better local league to aspire to play in.

Despite everything, we can only hope 2018 can still provide us with thrills and spills on the pitch instead of, as is too often the case in China, off it.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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